Shades of Varanasi

Whilst visiting India recently we travelled to meet the river Ganges at Varanasi, or Benares as it is called by local people. Nothing prepared us for the assault on our senses that this destination would offer. Every evening the ‘giving thanks for the day’ festival is held on the Ghats steps leading down to the legendary river Ganges. Setting off early evening to watch the ceremony, we were swept along the narrow streets of Varanasi, united together with a sea of people surging towards the Ghats. You had to be there to witness it for yourself – the fusion of chaos that you encounter during this passage - vehicle horns tooting and blasting at each other, pedestrians, cows, dogs, bikes and barrows all gridlocked as they tried to traverse the street. The mystical Varanasi atmosphere carrying a curious mixture of Nag Champa, Sandalwood smoke, cooked food, and animal smells.

As we reached the Ghats we could see hundreds of small wooden rowing boats moored ready to navigate along the river transporting their cargo of visitors to watch the thanks giving ceremony from the water. Our river boat rowed quietly upstream where we saw 24 hour funeral pyres blazing, their ash, eventually deposited into the holy Ganges a process believed by Hindu’s to give them an end to rebirth and instant enlightenment. The bodies bound firstly in white cotton and then in gold cloth are attend to by their families who gently dip them in the river alongside the existing burning pyres, which, are stoked by Domes using long bamboo canes to control the burn. The beautiful and serene scene felt surreal to the westerner unused to such openness as we watched the illuminations from the Ghats spreading its night-light rippling over the river, a few lone candles on flower cushions floated solitarily on the Ganges carrying a prayer for a loved one.

The next morning we rose early to watch the dawn rise over the Ganges. Travelling to the Ghats was much easier at five am although the town was already bustling with life. We reached our boat quickly and we were rowed downstream this time. The rising sun glimmered on the steaming river giving the morning a strange luminosity. As our boat glided quietly past the Ghat’s we witnessed people using the river purposely – a man lathering his body ready to rinse in the river, the Doby Wallers slamming wet clothes against their washing stones, others simply swam and bathed in the cool waters - relief from the Indian heat. On the banks children practised yoga, their instructions blaring from loud speakers on the wall. Siddhu’s, their faces streaked white, their hair dreadlocked practised ritual ceremonies on raised platforms where they rang bells and swung incense burners whilst standing stork-like on one leg, deep in meditation.

I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to visit Varanasi and to observe the people of Benares celebrating the life flow of the great mother Ganges River.

C Munkenbeck

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